Monday, February 14, 2011

These poems by Gail Mazur

Gail Mazur
Gail Mazur loves the telling detail in her poetry, a quality that can make for an intense reading of somone linking  the fluidity of experience with the  silent witness of inanimate things that happen to trigger an associating spree. She fares less well with  "Hermit". One of her shortcomings as a writer is a tendency to prattle; we witness a strenuous comparison of human habits and the observed , repetitive activities of species of crab in their natural environment. It's been remarked too many times that the act of perceiving something changes the nature of the thing being studied, and here I'd had have to reason that the intent hasn't anything to do with the crabs and more do with the convenient wallow that are the poet's projected short comings. 
The title is the tip off, and the punch line comes at you too soon, too often, over to great a length.One might note the digressions and find wonder in how she deliberates on Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who first syllogized about their place in the world of appearances but the effect here is drift. There is awareness that the poet tends to imbue the natural realm with characteristics mirroring concepts one identifies human activity with, but this stepping back from the metaphorical apparatus originally mounted in place serves only, I think, to introduce more intellectual clutter, that crabs are actually subject to Darwin's terms of natural selection.The irony is something you see coming right at you, conspicuous as a Barnum and Baily clown on a Wall Street trading floor; it is not the hermit crab that resembles human, but the rather the reverse. All of the things like emotion, poetry, philosophical speculation might merely be expressions of species behavior who's base motives are to feed, propagate, survive. Arriving at this point is not unlike listening to a bad joke a hundredth time from a friend who can't remember that you've already heard it, a hundred times.But we arrive at punchlines again; they ought to be efficient, quick, punchy. The good poet knows when to stop. 
 One elaboration is too many , and a thousand is not enough.This seems a plain old case of someone falling into the mind/body divide, that time in any competent poet's career where they consider the intractable vagueness of the world their senses reveal to them, a cosmology tempered and flavored with the nuance of personal history and association, and the world as it is. Gail Mazur , with her poem "Figures in a Landscape", wandered too close to that precipice and falls straight to the bottomless bottom, perhaps stupefied by what amounts to the poem's punchline; our perception of a scene being beautiful and arranged in pleasing "natural" alignments are a frame we impose on the raw phenomenon, a meaning we assign it from our collective troves of useful metaphors and purposes. The scenery, though, is unmindful of our presence, has no use for our notions of beauty, harmony, or the disguised meanings our desperate symbolism creates. Nature merely is, constant, churning, violent in its cycles of destruction and creation. We are only elements among other elements, subject to the same conditions of survival and extinction as are forests, oceans, diminishing species. My principle concern here isn't the subject matter, relentlessly pursued as it has been and continues to be, but with Mazur's admittedly fine tone and style. Graceful and as carefully selected as her phrases are, something does not ring true:
We were made things, deftly assembled
but beginning to show wear—
you, muscular, sculptural,
and I was I, we were different, we had a story.
On good days we found comedy in that,
pratfalls and also great sadness.
Sun moved across the sky and lowered
until you, then I, were in shadow, bereft.
She describes the experience of what she witnesses from a distance,as if standing on a sidewalk and describing a store's displays through the display window, with some creative and overly acute details and glaringly "literary" words to shore up what the limited visage can furnish. This thinking, of making this phenomenological befuddlement make sense in a short verse, comes through a few stops along the familiar template, first with a not unexpected epiphany ("we were made things, deftly assembled..") that sets us up for the finalizing grand slam, that the scenery is real and not dependent on our scenario's to make them mean anything.
If no one looks at us, do we or don't we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.
When you're in it, it's not landscape
any more than the horizon's a line you can stand on.
All well and good, I guess, but Mazur has belabored the obvious point that we cannot set aside our framing devices and see the world in-and-of-itself; as creatures of a culture through which we are compelled to achieve things with the knowledge of our own death, we need structure, continuity, community and the attendant virtues of purpose,love, unity of being. We create meanings that make the hardships worth the struggle; in short, we create of meaning-giving fictions to alleviate the constant dread that there is nothing beyond the biological imperative to eat, procreate, and die. Mazur , grace notes and all, reads more like a product tester's report. A brave face, perhaps, but this poem is territory others have been in as poets, with more interesting , intriguing revelations.
Would that more people read John Ashbery and ceased with demands that he make sense; the beauty of Ashbery's method of engaging the mind/body division is that immerses himself in, allowing his mind to navigate, with frequent brilliance, in the harbors and along the shorelines of Wallace Steven's world of Supreme Fiction. There are those stretches when the good Mr.AshberyAshbery, if not Mazur, it's the journey that energizes the poems.
Gail Mazur's poems have an easy elegance that can , in their best renderings, bring a number of heady matters into the same conversation without a sign of the stanzas tearing at the seams.Apparent one can read in a previous selection published on Slate,In Another Country, she has the ability to give form to a sense of sensations that you'd think would remain inarticulate and exist only as vaguely felt sensations: happy, sad, despairing, hopeful, what? She gives these sensations voice, a monologue. But as well as she brings her equivalent phrases for unnameable notions together in a smooth transition to a page , the transition is too pat, too eager for prime time. The conceits that drag her work down is the continued sense that the insoluble conditions she enjoys digging through for material find resolution in her over worked ironies."The Age" shows no shift in strategy and no modesty in the size of the unmentionables she tries to place a sign on; no more odes for an empty house, bring on the Temper of the Times!!!This would be fine, of course, but what irritates me is the implied exclusivity , the book cliquishness of this bit of zeitgeist mongering. You feel like a friend you came to a party with abandoned you with a group of others , none of whom you know, who are enthralled by a lone speaker who seems to be synthesizing everyone else's input into a discussion you know nothing about, touching on each tidbit and making them fit some clever if predictable irony grid work.